Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 01 April 2008
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival
Explicit Ills is a filmic tapestry, and it is a cohesive, fluid one. It concerns a myriad of characters in the Philadelphia suburbs: men and women, children and adults, blacks and whites. They each share a geographical and socio-economic proximity, scraping together for health, security, and happiness, and there’s the impression that their collective strife is demeaned by a perceptible bureaucracy. This is a familiar cinematic template, and cursorily only the location and characters are the distinguishing factors. (I am not familiar with HBO’s The Wire, but I’m told this film bears a notable resemblance to it.) What does distinguish the film is a palpable sense of activism. It is not inclined toward establishing scenarios of hardship and contriving a solution. Rather, it is sincerely and aggressively propagandistic.
This is Mark Webber’s first film, and ably excited audiences at SXSW (its first two screenings were at capacity, and it received both a jury award for cinematography and an audience award). It weaves through its myriad characters deftly, and it doesn’t emphasize coincidence as would be expected in a composite such as this. The proceedings decidedly lack juxtaposition; for example, a young boy winsomely courts a young girl, and in the next scene a mother will be attempting to purchase prescription medication for her child. Although associations may be made between these and other scenes, I don’t presume they’re to be associated. There are connections, but the film isn’t about these connections; it’s more concerned with the strife of the individual, and how it amounts to a larger, pressing social issue.
Explicit Ills is, despite its multitude, something of a one-sided film for this reason. Each of its parts is designed solely to exploit vulnerability and to raise awareness. It’s aggressive, but it has a feverish and admirable sense of purpose. Perhaps my sole qualm with it is its use of relative stars within the principally unknown cast, namely Rosario Dawson, as the mother of an asthmatic boy, and Paul Dano, although his role is much less substantive than others. Their presence is something of a disservice to the enterprise, even if their performances are entirely sound—this is among the most challenging roles Dawson has taken, and she’s exceptional in it. But she and Dano (exercised and limber after his ruinous quarreling and witnessing in There Will Be Blood) are a bit too distinguished, de-emphasizing the aspect of community that lends the film so much momentum.
Despite this, Explicit Ills has so much fervor that it is a disservice for me to question its casting, and my doing so says little of the supporting cast, which assumes more varied and demanding roles. The film has an urgent rhythm to it, to which every role is contributive, and it opens appropriately with a montage of static portraits of dilapidated housing—the cast serves the same utility as this opening, to establish a community without promoting one individual over another. Throughout, one character hands out flyers for a street march, and the film concludes with this, at which each of the surviving characters are present. This scene is loud and incantatory, screaming its intentions until you’re given to support its indefatigable voice.
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